A Memory Journey to Spaç Prison

Visiting the former cell blocks at Spaç Prison

This is a guest post written by Nayat Karaköse (Hrant Dink Foundation), who visited Tirana and Spaç in February 2016 and shared some of her insights about sites of memory. Here are her reflections on her visit:

In the past few days, after an invitation from Cultural Heritage without Borders-Albania, a foundation that restores not only buildings but also relations, I had the opportunity to visit Tirana.

The recent history of Albania was in fact far away from the serenity and peace that I was feeling while walking the streets of Tirana…

The dictator Enver Hoxha had turned the country into an open prison for 45 years, where tension, fear and violence were ever-present. During this period, 5500 men and women were killed, around 50,000 others were interned, held in concentration camps (ala gulag) and went through all kinds of tortures. As isolated as it was, Albania, this imprisoned country, banned religion, censured art and a host of other things.

The Most Terrible Prison in the World

Our first stop in Albania was Spaç Prison, which CHwB Albania aims to turn into a site of memory, through the dialogues project that they have launched. One hundred kilometers from the capital Tirana, 600 meters above sea level, at the peak of the village of Spaç, the ill-fated camp could be compared with Diyarbakır Prison (Turkey). Kept open between the years 1968-1991, this prison reminds me again, despite the geographical difference, of the truths that connect us, that unite us in similar violence. Maks Velo, who tasted this prison, like many other artists, and stayed there for 10 years, describes Spaç as the most terrifying prison in the world at the time.

Gjetë Gjoni at Spaç PrisonOur guide Gjetë knows Spaç well, since his father worked at the prison. He has the memories of an entire childhood to tell, and his extraordinary memory means that he doesn’t spare a single detail. His mission is to transmit the information that he has, and he has begun to work at the camp as a caretaker and an informal guide.

Gjetë tells us one-to-one about the places of torture, the offices of the directors, the meeting places, the cafeteria, the rooms filled with ideology and propaganda, the cells, the way to the mine, those killed trying to escape, the escapees who returned to the prison because they had nowhere to stay, etc. He tells about the revolt in 1973 and the sufferings of the families of the arrested as if they had happened yesterday.

His efforts to safeguard and transmit the memory are worthwhile. Gjetë won my sympathy, but he also touched my heart deeply. I have seen many guides, a good many of them, but I have never seen a guide as true as Gjetë. He has taken such responsibility for this place that he has even counted the visitors, some 1000 and change, he tells us. He asks me to write my name and a reflection in a register as the first visitor from Turkey. The words come to me when I see the excitement in Gjetë’s eyes.

Gjetë is a sentinel of memory. His eyes have seen so much, his ears have heard what others have not, and yet his tongue draws from his own heart the wish that these things would never happen again. In this way, Gjetë becomes one of the people that I will never forget, as long as I live.

“You should see it in spring sometime…”

Walking along one of the terraces of the rooms that served as a library, filled with propaganda books, I see a lone tree growing. “You should see it sometime when it’s green,” interjects Gjetë. Sometimes we say that some scenes stay forever in our memory – such is this tree for me. It, and Gjetë, to me expressed hope.

A tree grows in SpaçI remember once again that places of torture or cruelty can be turned into places of memory and conscience, that say never again, and can contribute to the “healing” of the victims. The efforts of Gjetë and CHwB now offer a contribution to this healing.

If a tree can blossom even at the top of a roof of a ruined place, despite the time and the reality that it faces, we should therefore always remind ourselves to spare a place for hope in reality and also in our imaginations as well.

This article first appeared in Agos on 26 February 2016: http://www.agos.com.tr/tr/yazi/14512/spac-hapishanesinde-hafiza-yolculugu [Turkish]

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